Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Another "Mass Stabbing", a Year Later

I wrote exactly one year ago today about a mass stabbing incident at a Texas university. Now, by coincidence or intentional copying, we find ourselves with another similar incident, this time at a high school just outside of Pittsburgh.

At this point details are still emerging, so it's difficult to say much yet for certain. From the early reports, it appears that a single student armed with two knives (one in each hand?) attacked students and others around his high school, injuring upwards of 20 or more people, some of them critically. Many but not all of the injuries were deep stab wounds, suggesting a deliberate attempt to kill or cripple. The perpetrator was apparently ultimately brought down by two adults working in tandem.

I will grant you that a young, fit male teen armed with two knives and intent on causing as much damage as possible is a difficult problem to deal with. Nearly all martial arts and self-defense training with which I'm familiar practices scenarios involving an attacker with one knife, not two (I know that Escrima/Kali is an exception here). On my own, I would be hard pressed to subdue someone like that without getting seriously injured myself. As part of a pair, it would become easier.

The thing that strikes me as noteworthy - as it did in the case a year ago - is not such much the self-defense tactics, or arguments about whether there should have been people armed with guns at the school or not (firing a gun in a crowded hallway full of panicked kids? Probably not a good idea). It's the fact that this kid could apparently move about the school, armed with nothing but knives, for several minutes without any kind of coordinated, or even coherent, response. I would guess that both victims and those nearest them struggled just to understand what was happening - and while they tried to figure that out, the attacker moved on to others.

This is the nature of out-of-the-blue emergencies and attacks. They take people unawares, and in so doing create confusion and chaos that an attacker can exploit. Self-defense scenario thinking - whether from Wayne LaPierre or the empty-hand martial arts crowd - assumes as a starting point that the defender knows what is going on. I have never seen an effective or realistic self-defense training that recreates the element of complete and total surprise. Frankly, the closest I've ever seen is the running gag in the old Pink Panther movies, in which Cato repeatedly attacks the Inspector out of nowhere, at the Inspector's request - probably not a good model to follow.

This is a part of self-defense and disaster preparedness that we would do well to think more about. At an individual level, it is difficult (but not impossible) to train your mind to be ready for the totally unexpected. Police forces and the military do this as a matter of course, both through training and through experience. There are unfortunate side effects of such exposure, of course, like PTSD, so we're limited in how much we can really "practice". But more can likely be done.

As an individual, you can at least start to construct mental models - in unexpected places in the middle of your day, imagine some mayhem erupting around you. What would you do? How would you react? What would you be able to see, or not see? You may think that this is not an exercise for everyone, because you feel you need to have some skills that could be applied to such a situation. But anybody can run and pull a fire alarm (a very good move on somebody's part in that high school).

At the group or institutional level, we need leaders - in school buildings, workplaces, and elsewhere - better trained to deal with these kinds of events, to take charge and react swiftly. You could argue (with some justice) that it's not fair that building principals and assistant principals also have to be, in essence, front-line police officers (if not soldiers). But they are, whether they like it or not. My institution is working on building a graduate program exactly for this need. We need a lot more of those.

Ultimately, as I have said many times, real-world violence is messy and chaotic and looks nothing like the movies or TV. When violence is presented on the screen, the director wants you to understand what's going on. In the real world, nobody cares whether you understand or not. And that chaos and confusion is the greatest danger that violence creates.

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